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Wednesday, 12 February, 2020

REST / HTTP methods: POST vs. PUT vs. PATCH

Each HTTP request consists of a method (sometimes called verb) that indicates the action to be performed on the identified resource.

When building RESTful Web-Services the HTTP method POST is typically used for resource creation while PUT is used for resource updates. While this is fine in most cases it can be also viable to use PUT for resource creation. PATCH is an alternative for resource updates as it allows partial updates.

In general we can say:

  • POST requests create child resources at a server defined URI. POST is also used as general processing operation
  • PUT requests create or replace the resource at the client defined URI
  • PATCH requests update parts of the resource at the client defined URI

But let's look a bit more into details and see how these verbs are defined in the HTTP specification. The relevant part here is section 9 of the HTTP RFC (2616).

POST

The RFC describes the function of POST as:

The POST method is used to request that the origin server accept the entity enclosed in the request as a new subordinate of the resource identified by the Request-URI in the Request-Line.

This allows the client to create resources without knowing the URI for the new resource. For example, we can send a POST request to /projects to create a new project. The server can now create the project as a new subordinate of /project, for example: /projects/123. So when using POST for resource creation the server can decide the URI (and typically the ID) of the newly created resources.

When the server created a resource, it should respond with the 201 (Created) status code and a Location header that points to the newly created resource.

For example:

Request:

POST /projects HTTP/1.1
Content-Type: application/json

{
    "name": "my cool project",
    ...
}

Response:

HTTP/1.1 201 Created
Location: https://cool.api.com/projects/123

POST is not idempotent. So sending the same POST requests multiple times can result in the creation of multiple resources. Depending on your needs this might be a useful feature. If not, you should have some validation in place and make sure a resource is only created once based on some custom criteria (e.g. the project name has to be unique).

The RFC also tells us:

The action performed by the POST method might not result in a resource that can be identified by a URI. In this case, either 200 (OK) or 204 (No Content) is the appropriate response status, depending on whether or not the response includes an entity that describes the result.

This means that POST does not necessarily need to create resources. It can also be used to perform a generic action (e.g. starting a batch job, importing data or process something).

PUT

The main difference between POST and PUT is a different meaning of the request URI. The HTTP RFC says:

The URI in a POST request identifies the resource that will handle the enclosed entity. [..] In contrast, the URI in a PUT request identifies the entity enclosed with the request [..] and the server MUST NOT attempt to apply the request to some other resource.

For PUT requests the client needs to know the exact URI of the resource. We cannot send a PUT request to /projects and expect a new resource to be created at /projects/123. Instead, we have to send the PUT request directly to /projects/123. So if we want to create resources with PUT, the client needs to know (how to generate) the URI / ID of the new resource.

In situations where the client is able to generate the resource URI / ID for new resources, PUT should actually be preferred over POST. In these cases the resource creation is typically idempotent, which is a clear hint towards PUT.

It is fine to use PUT for creation and updating resources. So sending a PUT request to /projects/123 might create the project if it does not exist or replace the existing project. HTTP status codes should be used to inform the client if the resource has been created or updated.

The HTTP RFC tells us:

If a new resource is created, the origin server MUST inform the user agent via the 201 (Created) response. If an existing resource is modified, either the 200 (OK) or 204 (No Content) response codes SHOULD be sent to indicate successful completion of the request.

Generally speaking, if the exact resource URI is known and the operation is idemponent, PUT is typically a better choice than POST. In most situations this makes PUT a good choice for update requests.

However, there is one quirk that should be remembered for resource updates. According to the RFC, PUT should replace the existing resource with the new one. This means we cannot do partial updates. So, if we want to update a single field of the resource, we have to send a PUT request containing the complete resource.

PATCH

The HTTP PATCH method is defined in RFC 5789 as an extension to the earlier mentioned HTTP RFC. While PUT is used to replace an existing resource, PATCH is used to apply partial modifications to a resource.

Quoting the RFC:

With PATCH, [..], the enclosed entity contains a set of instructions describing how a resource currently residing on the origin server should be modified to produce a new version.  The PATCH method affects the resource identified by the Request-URI, and it also MAY have side effects on other resources;

So PATCH, similar to POST, might also affect resources other than the one identified by the Request URI.

Often PATCH requests use the same format as the resource that should be updated and just omit the fields that should not change. However, it does not have to be this way. It is also fine to use a separate patch format, which describes how the resource should be modified.

PATCH is neither safe nor idempotent.

Maybe you are wondering in which situations a partial resource update is not idempotent. A simple example here is the addition of an item to an existing list resource, like adding a product to a shopping cart. Multiple (partial) update requests might add the product multiple times to the shopping cart.

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